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Villa Victoria
Archived Food Notes

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Maricela's Mole
November 2005

There are almost as many versions of mole as there are those who undertake to make it. Every recipe I have seen differs from the other. This difference is not just because each cook swears by the veracity of their version. There are regional diferences; Mole Poblano comes from the state of Puebla, where it is believed to have originated. Mole Negro hails from the state of Oaxaca and is a satiny, black and glossy liquid which has the consistency of Oklahoma crude oil. There are green moles, red moles and yellow moles. Mole is served at weddings birthday celebrations, gala occasions and at Christmas time. Modern Mexican supermarkets devote whole aisles to offer all the dry ingredients necessary for mole, stocking several varieties of chiles, nuts, chocolate and spices. It is officially, "El Platillo Nacional" (the National Dish). The origin of mole is a subject of endless debate and speculation.

Most scholars of Mexico's cuisine will agree that the invention of mole dates back to the end of the seventeenth century, when colonialism was the order of the day. Convent cuisine was taken to the realm of new and uncharted territory by the nuns whose aim was to please the bishops and dignitaries who passed through Puebla on their way to and from Veracruz and Mexico City. The Mestizo nuns quite naturally used a combination of ingredients rooted in the New World and borrowed from the Old World.

A nun of the Dominican order of Santa Rosa, Sor. Andrea de la Asuncion, was said to have invented mole on the Sunday before Lent, circa 1680. The occasion of her creation was a reception at the convent by the bishop, Don Manuel Fernandez de Santa Cruz y Sahagun given to honor the Viceroy and Captain General of New Spain, Don Antonio de la Cerda y Aragun, Conde de Paredes y Marqués de la Laguna. Don Antonio was travelling west to Mexico City from the Port of Veracruz to accept his new post. Legend goes that Sor. Andrea browned chile ancho, chile mulato, chile pasilla, and some chipotles in lard; she toasted sesame seeds, cloves, peppercorns, almonds, peanuts, cinammon sticks and anise seeds and then ground them; she added some disks of chocolate, roasted tomatoes, onions, garlic and tortillas, all of which was ground by hand on a metate. Finally, to this melange she thinned it out with some warm turkey broth, added some cooked turkey pieces, and Mole Poblano was born.

That is the neat and tidy version. In Bernal Díaz del Castillo's first-hand account of the conquest of Mexico, he relates that the Aztec high priests performed human sacrifices every day, offering human hearts to the god Huitzilopochtli. They believed that the sun would not rise the following day without this offering. He recalls, with horror, seeing some of his fellow Spaniards being sacrificed and that after the ceremony, the arms and legs were prepared in a chilmole sauce which contained chiles, tomatoes and other spices. The word, Mole is the Spanish-ization of the Nahuatl word mulli or molli which means "mixture".

It was a version of this mixture that my mother's neighbor, Maricela, made for her young daughter's birthday on one of my trips to California. In the last months that my mother lived, Maricela would check in on her, take her food, and would send her pre-teen daughters to keep her company. I thanked Maricela for looking out for my mother and she responded by inviting me to her daughter's birthday celebration. The next day I headed down the street with my four year-old daughter to Maricela's house. She received us warmly and served us a plate of chicken with mole, rice and tortillas. I'm glad I had the presence of mind then to ask for her recipe because it was the best mole I have ever eaten.

Months later when my family met again in California it was for my mother's funeral. I walked down the street to Maricela's house to ask her to make a large quantity of her mole for the gathering at the church. She was more than willing to do one last thing for Dona Eva.

Maricela's hand-written recipe was elegantly terse and it read like poetry:
Chile pasilla. Chile brito, barely. Chile puya.
One onion. Fried.
Garlic. Fried.
Plantain. Fried.
Raisins. Fried.
Cumin. Fried.
Cloves. Fried.
Sesame seeds. Fried.
Chocolate - to taste.
Cinnamon - to taste.
3 tomatoes.
6 tomatillos.
Cooked in water - the tomatoes.
Process all in blender.

My notes: The chiles should be seeded, toasted on a moderately hot griddle, soaked in very hot water for 20 minutes, buzzed up in the blender and passed through a fine strainer. In a dry sauté pan, toast 2 cinnamon sticks and grind in a spice mill. One disk of Mexican chocolate is recommended. Peel and don't seed red ripe tomatoes. Husk, wash and simmer tomatillos for five minutes. If the mole is too thick, add one or two more tomatoes or thin with chicken broth. Bring the sauce to a low boil and simmer for 20 minutes.

I'm not convinced that we need to be slaves to proportions and minutiae. Cooking is, at times, an imprecise science. Serve over poached chicken breasts, or slices of roast turkey breast.

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